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The New Home of Sports Neuroscience: An Interview With Dr Jaime Tartar

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Jaime Tartar, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Nova Southeastern University and president of the Society for NeuroSports, an academic society dedicated to the interdisciplinary collaboration between the fields of exercise science and neuroscience. Dr. Tartar completed postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School, where she studied the neurobiology of sleep. She is widely published in many areas of neuroscience on topics ranging from basic cell physiology to neurological impairments. Her research interests are focused on the mechanisms and consequences of acute and chronic stress in humans and the impact of normal sleep and sleep deprivation on emotion processing and physiological functioning. We spoke to Dr. Tartar about the need for sports neuroscience, and how this young field is rapidly advancing.

As an academic society, how does the Society for NeuroSports hope to impact the world of sports neuroscience?

Jamie Tartar (JT):
We aim to be able to provide an academic home to researchers working across fields. For example, those working in neuroscience, exercise science, psychology or physical therapy who are looking at brain-exercise relationships. We would also like to be able to provide those working in the applied fields a place where they can interact with academics in the field to share information and strengthen their practice.

A lot of people are currently doing work in the field of sports neuroscience, but because it doesn't have an established academic organization, I don't think that researchers right now identify themselves as sport neuroscientists, even though that's what they're doing.

Initially, our goal was to hold academic conferences and we had the first one in November 2019. This conference was exactly what we hoped it would be – there were researchers across disciplines sharing information and learning from each other. In fact, new and interesting collaborations also came from this conference! We would like to see this happen more at future conferences as the field and the society grows.

A secondary goal for us was to create and establish the first journal in the field of sports neuroscience. We have recently done that with the launch of the
Journal of the Society for NeuroSports. We are very pleased to offer this as an open access journal that does not have submission fees. We were able to do this by partnering closely with our university library that runs the journal through a special program that they have.

Because sports neuroscience often involves working across disciplines, we also offer a certification in the field of sports neuroscience. This allows academics and practitioners to share their knowledge across disciplines. People like me, for example – I am a neuroscientist who is working closely in the field of exercise science.

If money was no object, what subsets of sports neuroscience research deserve to see the light of the day the most?

I think that's a difficult question to answer. Most researchers would certainly pick their area because we love what we do!

There has been a lot of attention given recently to the impact of exercise and physical activity on brain health. This is a hot and growing area in science. I'm not sure how much the general public is aware of the recent findings on just how powerful exercise can be as a way of keeping your brain healthy. If anything, I think that information needs to be translated better to the public.

Jaime Tartar, Ph.D. Credit: NOVA 

Most people exercise for the physical benefits, but maybe more people would exercise for the brain benefits. Another area where we could use a lot of work is in brain injury in sports. Right now, the neurodegenerative disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that can develop as a result of impact sports is not well understood. CTE cannot be diagnosed currently until after death. It would be very helpful to have better translation or research in this area. Better understanding of one neurodegenerative disease can help the understanding of all of them so understanding more about CTE can also help with our understanding of Alzheimer's disease.

In your presentation last year at the 16th Annual Conference of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in Las Vegas, you spoke at length about the deleterious effects insufficient sleep has on sports performance. Is sleep monitoring a part of the solution?

Sleep monitoring can definitely help in sports performance. Athletes spend a lot of time training for performance and eating the right nutrition to perform better. Improving sleep is also critical to performance, but many athletes are not aware of just how much of an impact poor sleep has on sports performance. Many people, not just athletes, restrict their sleep in order to increase their daytime waking activities, but for athletes studies have demonstrated very clearly that when they sleep better they perform better. Athletes and non-athletes alike need to give themselves permission to get better sleep and think of sleep as a basic hygiene, just like eating well and exercising. It's difficult to gauge one’s sleep properly so monitoring this can be very helpful towards this goal.

In your presentation on ‘
How to manage the misbehaving brain’, you pointed out that in hunter-gatherer times, a drop in temperature was a reliable predictor of sleep onset, perhaps even more so than light. Would you expect this still to be the case today?

Not only would I expect this to be true today, but a good number of studies have demonstrated this to be the case. In general, sleep in humans and non-human animals is associated with a decrease in core body temperature. It has been clearly demonstrated that a decrease in core body temperature before sleep onset relates to faster sleep onset and better-quality sleep.

You’ve studied the role of acute and chronic stress, a topic of great interest in sports performance circles. Historically, most research was centered around cortisol and alpha amylase activity, however the latest advances in genotyping have allowed researchers to look at how genetic difference in dopamine levels affect athletic performance.

In one of your recent
studies, you investigated how a functional single-nucleotide polymorphism in the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene relates to catecholamine levels and allele types considered the “warrior” and the “worrier” genotypes. How does COMT allele status affect the athlete’s performance under stressful conditions? What about its impact on emotional processing?

People who carry 2 “G” nucleotide alleles for the COMT gene have less of a breakdown of dopamine in the brain and especially in the prefrontal cortex. We previously demonstrated that women who carry at least one copy of the "A" allele (who therefore have less dopamine breakdown/ more circulating dopamine in the prefrontal cortex) have better psychological health at baseline.

However, with the onset of stress, dopamine levels rise so for people who carry the GG alleles this rise puts their dopamine levels at the sweet spot for performance whereas people who have higher baseline dopamine levels (people who carry at least one A allele) this pushes their dopamine levels too high… to the point where they're not performing well. People with two G alleles are sometimes known as “warrior” allele carriers because they seem to be able to perform better under stress. In agreement with this idea, we recently published a
paper showing that professional MMA fighters are more likely to carry the GG allele than would be expected based on population data.